Early on the morning of Aug. 17, a Palestinian youth was beaten unconscious by a mob of Israeli teenagers in West Jerusalem’s Zion Square. The assailants were teenagers, some as young as 13, and many more youths allegedly stood around and watched. One perpetrator told the press that as far as he is concerned, the victim should die because “he is an Arab."
In a separate incident the night before, a Molotov cocktail was hurled at a Palestinian taxi driving in the West Bank, injuring the family in it, including a 4-year-old child. The primary suspects in what has been deemed a “terror attack” by Israeli leaders are adolescents from an Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin.
Just last week, two more separate nationalist-motivated hate crimes were committed in Jerusalem when Israeli teenagers decided to beat up Palestinians just for being Palestinian.
While Israelis and Palestinians are no strangers to conflict, and Israeli attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem have become an increasingly common phenomenon, these incidents appear especially troubling because of the perpetrators' ages, the nature of the crimes and their frequency. According to a new study on the impact that exposure to ethnic and political violence has on children’s behavior, this should not necessarily come as a surprise.
The study identifies a trickle-down effect in all groups, whereby the daily realities of life in a conflict zone — ranging from direct exposure to bombs or raids, to how often they have been “in a situation where there is a suspicious object or weapon,” to watching acts of violence on TV — increase the levels of violence in children’s communities, schools and families, which in turn increases their own aggressive behavior.
The study also found that “younger children should be more susceptible than older children to the effects of witnessed violence.” To assess the development of belligerent behavior, participants were asked questions like: “How often have you punched or beaten someone?” and “How often have you started a fight over nothing?” To this last question, 48% of Palestinians boys and 40% of Palestinian girls answered positively, compared with 36% of Israeli Jewish boys and 30% of Israeli Jewish girls, and 35% of Israeli Arab boys and 24% of Israeli Arab girls.
Not surprisingly, the study says that "Palestinian children appear to be at the greatest risk of exposure to various forms of violence in their social ecology, as well as at the greatest risk for exhibiting various forms of aggressive behavior." Some 55% of Palestinians answered positively to the question of whether they had a relative or friend injured as a result of “political or military violence,” compared with 23% of Israeli Jews and only 6% of Israeli Arabs. A frightening majority of 94% of Palestinians responded that they had “seen video clips or photographs of Palestinians being held hostage, tortured or abused by Israelis,” compared with 53% of Israeli Jews and 37% of Israeli Arabs. Asked whether they had seen these same incidents in person, 43% of Palestinians responded positively, as opposed to 14% of Israeli Jews and 8% of Israeli Arabs.
While the study locates common trends among Israelis and Palestinians, it also spotlights the disparate reality on the ground between the ethnic groups. As the occupied entity, Palestinians clearly suffer more from exposure to all sorts of violence than Israelis do — and thus subsequently develop more aggressive behavior and attitudes.
The study conducted by a team of Israeli, Palestinian and American researchers, is based on interviews with 1,500 children (600 Palestinians, 450 Jewish Israelis and 450 Israeli Arabs), at ages 8, 11 and 14, along with one of their parents. The same families were interviewed over three years between 2007 and 2010, creating a study that tracked the children’s development over time.
According to Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research who led research efforts, the study is the first of its kind. “While similar studies were done separately [with Israelis and Palestinians], what is unique about this study is that it was done simultaneously among Palestinian and Israeli kids, asking identical questions on both sides and studying effects of something in common between the two sides,” Shikaki said.
The study, conducted after the Second Lebanon War and during the period of the 2008-9 Gaza War (although interviews in the West Bank and Gaza were not held during the three-week war itself) found a slight decrease in exposure to violence among Israeli Jews, who are arguably experiencing one of the calmest periods in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the level of aggressive attitudes and behavior among Israeli Jews did not diminish as a result.
Interestingly, a significantly higher percentage of Israeli Jews responded that they are exposed to “security checks or threats.” Considering Israelis do not have to go through checkpoints, suffer threats from settlers or night raids and searches by IDF soldiers, this was a surprising finding. However, Shikaki explained that one likely reason is that respondents from Gaza (36% of the Palestinian sample) do not experience any security checks because there simply are no Israeli checkpoints inside Gaza. In addition, Palestinian children in the West Bank do not have to go through checkpoints as much as adults do for work.
Israeli researcher Dr. Shira Dvir Grossman explained that while “there is no comparison between the amount of violence Palestinians are exposed to compared to Israelis,” security checks in malls and other places are a part of daily life for Israeli children, a “constant reminder to the child that his life is under threat,” she said. In Israel, even if you do not live in an area susceptible to rockets from Gaza, just hearing about it has a substantial impact.
Beyond its contribution to behavioral development of children in high-risk areas, the study aims to explain ways in which families can cope with such volatility. Both Israeli and Palestinian researchers said that parents can be highly effective in protecting children from exposure to violence, and hope the study will prompt communal frameworks in both societies to act as a line of defense. “We hope this will become an issue for the educational system, to give kids some immunity in the future,” Shikaki said. “At the policy level, it is one of our most important goals.”
Dvir Grossman recommends, for example, that parents limit their children’s exposure to the news on TV. “Parents are always so worried about violent video games and movies, but let their children watch graphic violence on the news.” She says that children can differentiate between fantasy and real life and so it is vital for parents to remind children exposed to graphic news that violence is unacceptable. For many Palestinian parents, this often means prohibiting their kids from leaving the house altogether.
While the study does not purport to prove this, it appears that for all children who live in the perpetual throes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — most saliently Palestinian children in high-risk areas — violence has become a normal part of life whose absence would be the aberration.